School Takes Action: Students Held Accountable for Online Cyberbullying
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Manchester High School administrators are vowing to punish students for a pervasive type of bullying -- the social media posting of a list of female students described by one source as "nasty, graphic and disturbing."
Administrators learned on Friday that lists posted online "contained names of and derogatory information about some female students who attend the high school," Principal Matt Geary wrote in a letter to the school community.
Multiple students were involved in creating the lists, Geary wrote. A source who spoke on the condition of not being named said a group of boys at Manchester High created a list that used the full names of some girls and extremely degrading descriptions. One of the boys posted the list on Twitter, the source said.
Such lists are part of a trend among young people on social media in Connecticut and throughout the nation. They are called "thot lists," and typically include names of girls seen to be sexually permissive ("thot" stands for "that 'ho over there"). Among the schools that have had to deal with "thot" lists recently is A.I. Prince Technical High School in Hartford.
"This is a pervasive thing. It doesn't just happen at Prince Tech," Principal William Chaffin said. "It's not an urban thing -- it's a social media thing that's pretty common among teenagers."
Bullying, which increasingly includes online bullying, can deeply hurt those targeted, sometimes ending in suicide, as in the case of Rebecca Ann Sedwick, a seventh-grader in Lakeland, Fla., who in September jumped to her death from an abandoned cement factory silo after enduring a year of face-to-face and online bullying. In that case, 12- and 14-year-old girls are facing charges of aggravated stalking, a third-degree felony.
"I want you to know that administrators moved quickly to investigate this issue and that our investigation will continue through the weekend and into Tuesday morning," Manchester's Geary wrote. "There will be stiff consequences, up to recommended expulsion, for those students who initiated or distributed these lists."
Geary noted that online bullying cases have increased significantly across the country, "and one cannot turn on the news without reading about the deep and sometimes tragic impact cyber-bullying has on young people."
A Courant review of state education records found more than 1,250 incidents of school bullying were reported to the state from 2005 to 2012. The state's largest cities -- Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven -- reported the most incidents, with Hartford reporting 91 verified incidents.
Chaffin said Wednesday that a "thot" list circulated at the school last week and that a couple of students were disciplined for possessing it. Chaffin declined to specify the students' punishment; school administrators were unable to identify who created the list, he said.
Several Prince Tech female students were upset after learning their names were on the list, Chaffin said. But he warned that such a list is "not a Prince Tech phenomenon. It's pretty widespread."
"Those things happen at least once a year, everywhere," said Chaffin, a longtime Hartford educator. "These are the dangers of social media. People can hide behind whatever [social media] program they're using and not have to own up to their comments. ... And it makes people feel courageous to say certain things. Obviously, it causes commotion in a school because people are mad that they're on a list, which is understandable. I'd be mad, too."
The lists are often created as an anonymous form of revenge that quickly spreads through Twitter, Facebook, Kik Messenger and other social media, Chaffin said, making it difficult for school officials to identify the culprit.
The state legislature passed an anti-bullying law in 2011 that speeds school response, expands staff training, makes all school employees mandated reporters of bullying, addresses cyber bullying and launches statewide school climate assessments.
Under the state legislation, schools must report acts of bullying to the state, starting this year. The state's definition of bullying includes "the repeated use by one or more students of communication, a gesture or a physical act directed at or referring to another student in the same district that causes physical or emotional harm or fear of such harm."
In Manchester, Geary asked the school community to review the board of education's policy on bullying, which says in part that bullying is prohibited on school grounds and at school-sponsored or school-related programs and events, whether on or off school grounds.
The board also prohibits any form of bullying behavior outside the school setting if it "creates a hostile environment at school" for the targeted student, infringes on the bullied student's rights or "substantially disrupts the education process or the orderly operation of a school," the policy says.
"As you know," Geary wrote, "I am and continue to be a strong advocate for the use of technology as an important educational tool. While I am deeply disappointed in Friday's events, I want to point out that we continue to work on developing good digital citizens at MHS and that the vast majority of our students utilize technology appropriately every day.
"Additionally," he continued, "I am encouraged by the number of students who saw these lists, were appalled by their contents, and reported their existence to either a teacher or administrator and by the actions taken by both teachers and the administrative staff to ensure that these concerns were investigated immediately."
A quarter of the state's high school students -- and 35 percent of the state's ninth-graders -- report having been bullied or harassed on school property, according to the Connecticut Commission on Children. The Connecticut School Health Survey shows that state high school students who report being bullied are more likely to get less sleep, miss school because they feel unsafe, feel depressed or attempt suicide, according to the commission.
Although bullying traditionally has been handled as an issue to be worked out among students, teachers and parents, the criminality of certain types of bullying and whether students should face legal prosecution are other aspects of the ever-changing debate.
Stamford police recently arrested a 12-year-old girl and charged her with disorderly conduct for bullying another girl. Police said an investigation began in September when the target's parents contacted police and said another student had repeatedly bullied the 13-year-old at school. When the bullying worsened and the targeted girl made comments about committing suicide, police said they immediately got involved.
If you have a child with a disability and have questions about special education law, please contact Joseph C. Maya, Esq., at 203-221-3100, or at JMaya@mayalaw.com, to schedule a free consultation.
Source: Jesse Leavenworth, SCHOOL TACKLES CYBER BULLYING; STUDENTS FACE PUNISHMENT; MANCHESTER, The Hartford Courant at A1 (Nov. 14, 2013)
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